EPICA — Design Your Universe (review)

EPICA — Design Your Universe album cover Album · 2009 · Symphonic Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
cennsor
[review originally published on http://thecennsor.wordpress.com/]

Being to the premiere concert Epica put out in Amsterdam a few days prior to the release of their new full-lenght Design Your Universe was probably the worst idea I could come up with – in order to keep this review objective. Too late, I guess. And besides being witness to hell of an output (the show, even choreographically speaking, was great), I had the chance to hear how the (almost) whole new album sounds like on stage. And that falls nowhere short from its studio value: magnificent.

For those who might be wondering: the addition of Ariën van Weesenbeek on drums did bring a whole new approach to the songwriting. So did the add-on of guitarist Isaac Delahaye (to be held responsible for the unexpected appearance of several solos here and there). As a result, Epica‘s sound has (finally?) become much heavier and aggressive, yet of course still awesomely balanced by their trademark penchant for symphonic melody.

This whole new attitude also carried an impact to vocals. Fear not: our beloved operatic Simone can still hit quite some high notes. But you’ll have to appreciate the variety to her singing style, to be heard (I’m picking my own favourite example, but many more are possible) on Martyr of the Free Word, which moreover features a gregorian-like choir of exquisite quality. Mark‘s grunts are also still there, as well as Ariën‘s. We might as well mention Tony Kakko‘s contribution on the duet-ballad White Waters — again, a good effort, even in the ear of a non-fan of Sonata Arctica‘s like me.

But the force of this album lies in the way a couple of elements have fallen into place, even more than before. Epica have been building on a very unique style in the direction of a more and more mature symphonic sound, rising out of a rib of the now dead After Forever to develop into a yardstick in their genre. Whoever would’ve looked up at Nightwish, some years ago, as the quintessence of symphonic metal, has now a younger act to reckon with — and that does say something.

Design Your Universe is a testament to Epica‘s well-deserved leading role in the sub-genre of symphonic metal. Slashy guitar riffs, majestic arrangements, far crunchier rhythms and more varied vocal lines, all merged into a very mature songwriting, couldn’t but lead to very worthy nominee for “album of the year”. Yeah, you’ve heard me. Here’s more than enough to earn the Cennsor‘s greatest honor for 2009. Coming out straight after one of my favourite bands’ most recent output (see previous review), that again means quite something.

Let me stress on but one of the elements leading to a perfect album that I’ve credited Design Your Universe to possess. It’s the positioning of the songs throughout the record. Not to overrate it, but it can certainly help an album gain a steady spot on your playlist. The scheme short intro+bursting opener with the long title track as a closer still finds its place here. Resign to Surrender in fact already sets the tone for the rest of the album: one definitely gets the impression (the hope?) a new, higher level of heaviness is what we’re going to deal with here. Which is definitely the case, as shown by the couplet Martyr of the Free Word – Our Destiny and again, later on, by yet another pair of pretty heavy pieces, Deconstruct and Semblance of Liberty, the latter being sort of Epica‘s own reprocessing of Fear Factory‘s Replica they had covered on their previous album.

After Our Destiny, the 13 minute long epic Kingdom of Heaven pinpoints the album’s coordinates (heaviness on a symphonic note, with very proggish syncopated riffs in between), to give way to an interlude followed in its turn by the TDC-styled Burn to a Cinder. Time for a tender piano ballad (Tides of Time), then back to some heaviness, and finally the aforementioned White Waters and the title track.

The owners of the album’s limited edition will be further pleased with Incentive, a great combination of grunt vocals, hammering drumming and very epic cues.

THUS SPAKE THE CENNSOR: To try and go into even further details couldn’t however replace the great experience, filled with what is really an epic feeling, you’ll undergo if you actually listen to Design Your Universe. The Cennsor advices to go have a listen, for if you already liked Epica, you’ll now stick with them much tighter. 9/10
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